By Ariffin Sha
It seems that there is more to the Ministry for Communications and Information's (MCI) policies than just treating political associations differently from other associations. Now, it appears that they treat the ruling People's Action Party differently from other political parties, claims the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
On 20 October, NSP appealed against the refusal by MCI to renew the newspaper permit for its party organ, the North Star News, as members of NSP's CEC did not disclose their Monthly Income and Disposable Capital to MCI.
The reasons why NSP's CEC refused to disclose their financial information and their grounds of appeal were explained in depth in an earlier post on the NSP website. This requirement only applied to political associations. Which means that every political association which intends to publish a newspaper would need to disclose their financial information to the MCI while non-political associations do not need to.
On 10 December, in it's further submissions to the President, NSP revealed evidence to suggest that "MCI not only discriminates against Political Associations, but further discriminates against opposition political parties".
This exchange in Parliament from 2002 between Mr Steve Chia, Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr David Lim sheds some light on the inequality.
Mr Steve Chia Kiah Hong (Non-Constituency Member): Moving on to my second cut, Sir, I would like to ask the Minister regarding the application of a printing permit for a political party newsletter, what is the reason for requiring all the CEC members of a party to apply for this printing permit. It is not possible for the whole CEC to sit on the editorial board to edit every article of the newsletter. Should not the onus and licence requirement responsibility from the Editorial Board alone be sufficient? This will help to simplify requirements and also be a lot more meaningful. Can the Minister kindly explain why all the CEC members in a political party that applies for such a printing permit also be required to declare their personal assets? Is this requirement also enforced upon the PAP publication, Petir? And that all the PAP CEC members also have to declare their personal assets to MITA [former acronym for MCI] when they apply for this printing permit. I am not sure, but I do not think so. Therefore, is such a requirement a veiled threat to the opposition political parties and a means to suppress their freedom of publication? Can the Minister kindly clarify?
Mr David Lim: Mr Steve Chia also asked why it is necessary for the CEC members of political parties to be named as the publishers of party websites and newspapers, and to declare their assets.
Sir, in politics, it is only too easy to run down political opponents or to stir up trouble under the cloak of anonymity. This is why it is necessary to remove this cover. It is reasonable and fair to expect CEC members, as the highest decision making body of a party, to stand by their views openly, and to take responsibility for what is published on their website or in the newspapers. Also, requiring CEC members to declare their assets when they apply for a newspaper permit ensures that they are people of substance who have not tried to avoid their responsibilities by appointing proxies to represent them on the CEC, and to be the fall guys should they run into trouble with the law.
Mr Chia has also asked if this rule applies to Petir and to the PAP. Yes, it does. But PAP CEC members declare their assets to the Prime Minister and SBA accepts that declaration as fulfilment of this requirement.
Mr David Lim's response is flawed on a few grounds. Firstly, his fear of anonymous politicians is completely unfounded. The phrase "anonymous politician" itself is an oxymoron. It does take a stretch of imagination to think up a scenario where a group of shadowy men take control of a political party by filling its CEC with "front-line soldiers" to take the brunt while they make the real decisions by pulling the strings.
There are more than enough mechanisms in place to prevent such a scenario, both legal and within political parties itself. Why didn't the Minister consider that political parties will have its own internal rules for discipline?
It takes a minimum of 10 individuals to register a society. (Sec. 2 Societies Act.) Registration of a society is subject to approval of the Registrar of Societies and if one looks at the provisions in Societies Act one would be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that societies are well regulated. Granted that no system is foolproof, but as past experiences show, like in the recent case of Yaw Shin Long, Opposition Parties have been swift and responsible in dealing with errant members.
As mentioned earlier, it really does take a stretch of imagination to come up with such a situation, almost as much imagination as it takes to conjure a "Marxist Conspiracy".
On a more serious note, this also raises another question. Let us say the CEC of a political party discloses their financial information to the MCI, but they are not too well off. Does this mean that the CEC's application for a newspaper permit would be rejected? How much is enough? There seems to be a lack of transparency on that matter.
The last line of Mr Lim's reply certainly did raise many eyebrows. It also prompted Mr Chiam See Tong to raise a supplementary question.
Mr Chiam See Tong: I just want to seek some clarification from the Acting Minister. Just now, he said that the particulars of assets of the members of the CEC of the PAP are handed to the Prime Minister. If I am not mistaken, the PAP is a private political party, just like any other political party in Singapore. I believe also that Petir is a publication of a private organisation. It is not a Government publication. How is the law being complied with when it is required that all the CEC members must submit their assets to SBA, but in this case, it was submitted to the Prime Minister?
Another clarification. When the details of assets are submitted to the Prime Minister, is it submitted to the Prime Minister as Prime Minister, or is it submitted to the Prime Minister as the head of the PAP?
Mr David Lim: The PAP is not just a private political party. It is the ruling party. It is the Government. It forms the Government. When office-holders declare their assets to the Prime Minister, they declare to the Prime Minister as the Prime Minister. The purpose of having this rule, as I gave Mr Steve Chia in my reply, was to ensure that the CEC members are people of substance and that they do not put proxies on board the CEC so that these proxies can be the fall guys for them should they run into trouble. This objective is achieved by the declaration that the CEC members make to the Prime Minister in their duties as office-holders.
Mr Chiam is absolutely right to point out that the PAP, although it does form the Government, is still a political association. Therefore, Petir, it's newspaper, is a publication of a private organization. It was a very good supplementary question, in my opinion. Mr Lim's reply to the question sounded almost like a rant.
Many often like to equate the Government with the PAP. It isn't. The PAP is part of the Government but the Government is most certainly not the PAP. There is much more to the Government than the PAP alone. It's about time that we put an end to this flawed conflation, but it definitely would not be easy when the Government itself does not see any bright line separating the PAP from the Government, as Mr Lim's reply clearly illustrated. But it is expected as this myth does serve their political agenda and would certainly help in fear-mongering.
We see this same fear-mongering in PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the PAP60 rally. PM Lee had said that for every opposition MP, "there will be one less doer, thinker and leader in the government to serve the nation and the people." Well, where are the Permanent Secretaries and civil service, then? Are they not the actual ones doing the work? Why mix up the Government with the party?
The simple fact that members of the PAP CEC do not have to declare their financial information to the MCI while all other political associations have to do so is nothing less than a blatant display of double standards. Declaration to the Prime Minister, the leader of their own political party, is an entirely different thing altogether and it would not suffice. The Principle of Equality entrenched in Article 12 of the Constitution would ideally need MCI to require the PAP CEC to go through the same application process as any other political party.
Another argument present in NSP's further submissions was how the way in which the outcome of the appeal was to be decided would be in breach of a principle of natural justice. 'Nemo iudex in sua causa' is a Latin phrase that means no-one should be a judge in his own cause.
In the case of this appeal, the decision would ultimately be made by the Cabinet and not the President himself. This is because the President has to act on the advice of the Cabinet, since he has no power to decide the outcome of the appeal in his own discretion. NSP argues that even when the MCI is left out when the Cabinet deliberates on this issue, there are still multiple conflicts of interest present.
As the Cabinet making a decision on the matter would be a breach of a principle of natural justice, NSP has proposed for an Onbudsman to be appointed to decide on the appeal. The Onbudsman would consist of a three member panel - one nominated by the Cabinet, one nominated by NSP and the third to be nominated by the joint decision of the Cabinet's nominee and NSP's nominee.
This seems to be a pretty fair proposal as no-one should be a judge in his own cause. It'll be interesting to see how the Cabinet responds.
At this point, I would like to re-iterate something which I first talked about in an article I wrote which addressed some criticisms the Workers' Party and NSP faced in pursuing the trade fair issue in court and for failing to complete the MCI forms, respectively. Things like these might make it look like NSP is being petty or making a mountain out of a molehill, but it is not. It's these 'small' things which when go unopposed give the powers that be the confidence to impose even more of such unjust rules.
I'm thankful that NSP did take a stand against this unjustified requirement by MCI. It had nothing to gain by doing so and submitting the forms without appealing would have certainly been easier. It's good that NSP did not take the easy way out and demonstrated it's principled approach. Because of its appeal and subsequent submissions, we now have a better picture on many fallacies in the Government's arguments, and it certainly did expose the double standards within double standards.
This special treatment for the incumbents has got to go.
These requirements by MCI are just one manifestation of this lack of equality and double standards for opposition parties, which is prevalent in many forms. More often that not, be it in filling up forms or in the ability to influence the media, opposition parties are institutionally disadvantaged.
But all is not lost. With time and the political education of the populace, we'll all be collectively able to call their bluff, expose and ultimately bring down such unjust and rules, one at a time. This is essential if we are to stay true to the Rule of Law and the principle of equality.